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Opinion: Explaining the Sri Lankan Conflict – Part 1

March 23, 2009

By Gogol G.

Introduction:

The Agenda with Steve Paikin, a TV program on TVOntario, recently did a show on Sri Lanka that was the center of some controversy and praise.  On the show, they announced that they would discuss whether the show was fair or biased on their blog.  What followed was an intense discussion…

You can read the first part of the discussion in the original blog entry:
http://www.urlzen.com/79h

A second blog entry was made to continue the discussion as well as shift the topic of discussion a little bit.  The second blog entry also includes a link to the video of the show.
http://www.urlzen.com/7n7

What follows are the questions from the blog, and my comments in response to them. Most of what is here below is as it was from the original blog, but I did take liberties to make minor changes for readability, completeness, or substitute tenuous ideas with stronger ones. The comments are separated into 2 parts; this is the first.  At the end of the 2nd part, I include some final thoughts and requests of you.  Additionally, I have written a critique of TVO’s handling of the SL situation in general, which can be found here.

The Comments – Q & A Format:

We received several angry calls and e-mails today from members of the Sri Lankan community complaining that we had produced a biased program. Strangely enough, they told us this before the program had even gone to air.  It’s Tuesday’s program on the Sri Lankan Civil War, or, as we’re calling it “The Tear Drop Civil War” (since the island of Sri Lanka is shaped like a tear drop). While Sri Lanka is a diverse nation, the civil war has been fought primarily by two groups: The government-controlled Sri Lankan Army and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, also known as the LTTE or the Tamil Tigers for short.

So here’s the program we put together:

—A one-on-one interview with Bob Rae to give us a brief history lesson of the conflict. We invited Rae on not because he’s a Liberal MP, but because before he re-entered politics he served as the President of the Forum of Federations and tried to help negotiate a settlement between Sri Lanka’s warring parties.
—A debate featuring two Sri Lankans who were very critical of the LTTE, two Sri Lankans who would speak more from the point of view that Tamils have been mistreated by the Sri Lankan government, and someone from the respected NGO Human Rights Watch who had recently been to the island and who felt both sides had been guilty of war crimes, in other words a knowledgeable “third party” observer.

So one guest to give a history lesson at the start of the program, then a discussion with two anti-LTTE Sri Lankans, two Sri Lankans who are very critical with the way Tamils have been treated in Sri Lanka, and an observer who is part of neither group. We thought that was pretty balanced. But some Sri Lankans beg to differ.

Where some say our program falls short

Issue one is Bob Rae. Rae is a no-no to some Sri Lankans who see him as too pro-Tamil. Why? Because he has worked towards achieving some kind of Sri Lankan federation, where the Tamils have some kind of autonomy (such as their own province). Some want Sri Lanka to remain a unitary state. Also, he and other Liberals have made statements that supporters of the Sri Lankan government find biased towards the LTTE and the Tamil cause.  Our response to issue one: Rae was invited to give primarily a history lesson on Sri Lanka, not to opine on the current situation. The interview with him primarily sticks to the facts.

Issue two: Anna Neistat, our guest from Human Rights Watch. Sri Lankans sympathetic with the Sri Lankan government say Human Rights Watch is a biased organization that favours the LTTE.   Our response: I spoke to Niestat and she was critical of both the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE. And she recently worked on a report that said this:   “The Sri Lankan armed forces and the LTTE appear to be engaged in a perverse competition to demonstrate the greatest disregard for the civilian population. In the last two months alone, both sides have committed numerous violations of international humanitarian law, the laws of war. While not all loss of civilian life is a laws-of-war violation, the failure of the government forces and the LTTE to meet their international legal obligations has undoubtedly accounted for the high death tolls. ”  That doesn’t sound as though she is heavily biased towards one side or the other.

Issue three: Federalism. Most of the guests on our program favour or are at least open to some kind of partition or federal framework as a solution to the Sri Lanka conflict, whereas there are many Sri Lankans who reject this idea.  Our response: critics might have a small point here. But the focus of this program is not to debate various kinds of federal/non-federal solutions to the Sri Lankan conflict. We may come back to that at some future date.

Issue four: Tamil Muslims. I had a very interesting series of conversations with a Tamil Muslim gentleman who was angry that we did not include a small but significant group of Sri Lankans in our discussion tonight: Tamil Muslims. Most Tamils are Hindu. But according to this gentleman, Tamil Muslims form approximately seven to eight per cent of the Sri Lankan population. And they have often been caught in the middle between the LTTE and the Sri Lankan army. Again according to this person, 80,000 Tamil Muslims have been displaced by the recent fighting. Here are some links he sent me for those interested in learning more:
http://indymedia.org.nz/mod/comments/display/193452/index.php
http://www.slmc.org.uk/honagrmnt1.htm
http://yvonneridley.org/yvonne-ridley/articles/the-plight-of-sri-lankan-muslims-4.html
Our response: While this gentleman’s frustration that Tamil Muslims rarely get mentioned in the conflict is understandable, I believe we have people who represent more than 80 per cent of the Sri Lankan population on the program, including, as I said earlier, the main protagonists in the conflict. I also think that we will discuss many of the issues that pertain to Sri Lankan Muslims despite the fact that no Sri Lankan Muslims are on the program.

There are some other issues, but I think I’ll leave it at that for now.   Bandula Jayasekara, the Sri Lankan Consul General in Toronto, told me he wasn’t even going to bother to watch the program. I’m disappointed since, as a journalist, I always like to see something before I pass judgment on it.

For those of you that did see it, was tonight’s program fair or biased?

My comment is not about the episode. It’s about the stand that you, TVO, is taking. And you guys are my heroes today!!

The debate was balanced indeed. It is balanced for the reasons you pointed out: the numbers were even, and the emphasis and criticism of both viewpoints were even.

But what I really want to laud is how TVO has stood up to the accusatory rhetoric. From the criticisms to the downright name-calling and threatening language, you guys have clearly made a clear, principled decision and have had the guts to explain yourselves. And yes, I believe your reasons are fair enough. It’s not that hard. You aren’t even taking a stand!!! But taking a stand is a little hard, esp. for others, but my, you guys did quite fine.

From PBS (in the Tavis Smiley interview of MIA), or the Globe & Mail (in the release of Stephanie Nolen’s front-line reporting of government attacks, civilian tragedy and trauma, and Tiger recruitment), or even the UN Security Council (requesting merely a briefing on SL), many Western organizations and media have simply done their job and/or expressed their concern vis-a-vis Sri Lanka. In the face of the reaction — pro-Sri Lankan Government Sinhalese Diaspora online onslaught, or the SL Govt. official PR statements labeling anyone not “with them” as terrorist-supporters [witches] — these organizations have backtracked on their banal statements and subsequently clearly come down more in support of the SL govt or against the LTTE. Meanwhile, the UN’s John Holmes was called a terrorist in 2007 for the same reason, so his recent visit last month was clearly supportive of the gov’t. Apparently, he was taught a lesson, too. Many other UN officials have been called terrorists in the past 2 years.

I think they did this kind of witch-hunting in 1600’s Salem, or against ‘Commies’ in McCarthy-era US, or against ‘evil-doer terrorists’ in George W. Bush era USA. Where’s the voice of sanity?

That’s you guys, and you know it. Rock on! Thanks TVO!!!

Hi,

As the producer of last night’s program, I want to thank everyone for their comments. It’s nice to see the program generated so much feedback.

I do have a question for Tamils reading this. I’ve noticed that several of the comments, presumably from Tamils, have thanked guest Anna Neistat of Human Rights Watch for pointing out instances of gross mistreatment of Tamils by the Sri Lankan government, particularly in the current “safe zones” and camps. But she also said something else that many of these comments have ignored. Here’s a transcript of one part of last night’s discussion:

“NEISTAT: We documented several cases when LTTE forces shot at people who were trying to flee the area.

STEVE PAIKIN: Just so I’m clear, Tamil Tiger people fired at Tamils in order to prevent them from leaving? Is that what you’re saying?

NEISTAT: Absolutely. Yes, absolutely. And that’s one of the greatest problems right now when we’re advocating for humanitarian corridors for allowing civilians to leave, LTTE is a big part of the problem. They do not allow civilians to leave. They do not want civilians to leave, largely because, and again this is some of the cases we personally documented, when LTTE used civilians as so-called human shields to protect their positions from attack. They place their positions in front of the camps of the displaced persons, near the hospitals. And this is plainly speaking a war crime.”

I am not trying to minimize the human rights abuses by Sri Lankan forces that have been well-documented by many international organizations. But these same international organizations have documented human rights abuses by the LTTE.  (I know some people have said that these Tamil shootings are due to Sri Lankan soldiers dressed as LTTE fighters. But credible international organizations, including Anna Neistat’s Human Rights Watch, do not buy this. Neither should you.)

So to the Tamils reading this, I’m wondering: The LTTE is shooting at innocent Tamils?

The Tigers are shooting at Tamil civilians, and that’s really awful.  Even if what is in store for the civilians who flee the Tiger-held areas is an internment camp or worse (as is being reported by multiple sources), the civilians should still have freedom of movement and the ability to do so without being shot at.  If the LTTE is fighting for the rights of these Tamil civilians, they ought not to be firing at them.  (The same holds true for the government ostensibly claiming them as its citizens.)  I wonder, are they shooting everybody? Is it systematic?  If so, we might expect to see recent bullet wounds from many of the 30,000+ escapees.  From what HRW says, they shoot not to kill, but to prevent movement. But people have died, and that’s unacceptable.

The LTTE is commiting war crimes and killing Tamils. How do you feel about that?

Regarding “war crimes”, that’s a loaded term, and I think we need context. War is ugly, and crimes against humanity happen. That being said, why have war in the first place? Well, a government’s police and army are by default, legitimized forms of violence, but if they support laws and institutions that are systemically unjust and deny rights, who’s there to do something? Organized power can only be countered with organized power. Two examples from fiction — non-violent resistance lands you in a 1984 situation. Rising up against the regime might be something like V for Vendetta.

Back to reality in Sri Lanka.

The killing of one Tamil journalist in a bombardment was called a war crime by Reporters Without Borders: http://www.rsf.org/article.php3?id_article=30312 .

Now what about the 7000 Tamil civilians in the past 2 months? Or the 100,000+ Tamil civilians in the past 25 years? And in general, how do you change a system that is fundamentally and systemically racist? Thousands of Tamils have died through the decades since independence trying nonviolent protest and nonviolent politics. At the end of the day, so long as Sri Lanka’s sovereignty remains unchallenged — i.e., the military and police, which are the state’s ‘legitimate’ organs for organized violence to uphold the state and its laws, remain superior — the institutions of injustice, racism, and any war crimes that have been perpetrated by the state will continue and go unpunished. (The Sri Lankan government also secures its immunity by playing one foreign superpower against another.) Investigations will be stymied by the government playing the ‘sovereignty’ card.

That’s the reality Tamils live with every day.

Counter-insurgency, from its roots in colonialism all the way through the present, is basically this: collectively punish the civilian population supporting the insurgents until the civilian population cries for mercy. That’s what’s going on in SL right now. To get a thorough explanation on the military and philosophical aspects of this, and many insights to the war in SL, read Learning Politics from Sivaram by Mark Whitaker.

Is it wrong for the Tamils to see LTTE as their only hope for the survival of their race? This is not a question I can answer. But I would be interested to hear what other people think.

(One thing: I realize this is a very emotional issue for people on all sides of the conflict. As a result it is only natural many of the comments here would reflect some deep emotions. Given the topic, that is as it should be. But as this conversation continues, I ask that everyone please do their best to keep their comments thoughtful and avoid using purely hateful language — against anyone. I have been impressed with the thoughtfulness of many of the comments so far, and I hope this will only continue. )

I think there’s a huge problem with that question. What I would say is… Show us the alternatives and then we can discuss whether it’s wrong for Tamils to support the LTTE.

While not all Tamils support the LTTE, many do, and among those, there are different degrees of support. But this is key: No matter what opinion Tamils hold of the LTTE, most support the concept of “Tamil Eelam” — an autonomous political entity for the N & E of the island. The details may differ, but their alienation from the Sri Lankan government and their desire to live lives free of its control are incontrovertible.

This is not new; it is the result of 60 years of experience.

The structure of the SL state perpetuates a cycle of racism and oppression. As a unitary state, with 75% the majority, and bonus seats to large vote-getting parties, history shows the more Sinhala chauvinism you espouse, the better your chance of winning a majority of that 75%. With a few extra seats, you can make it to 50% of Parliament and rule. Meanwhile, the opposition schemes how to one-up the ruling party by being more extreme, and then does so. It’s easy: just promise more to Sinhalese, conveniently scapegoat Tamils in your narrative, and voila. Read the book Blowback: Linguistic Nationalism, Institutional Decay, and Ethnic Conflict in Sri Lanka by Neil DeVotta to get a thorough treatment of this. When you read post-1948 SL history, you’ll see this clearly. Or ask any Tamil Baby-Boomer adult — they have lived it. (Side note: Prabakharan, leader of the LTTE, is in this category, too.)

To stop this self-reinforcing cycle, band-aids won’t cut it. A radical rupture & redesign is necessary. The rupture can happen if people fight, or if the international community steps in like they did in Yugoslavia or Cyprus. Either way, it takes organized force to counter the organized force of the state (military & police) that are by default ‘legitimate’. The redesign can be a federal setup (more substantial in devolution than Indian/US federalism, like Canadian, or more), confederal, or independence.

What is a state? I refer you to the chapter on this in the book, Learning Politics from Sivaram by Mark Whitaker. (For anyone genuinely interested in Sri Lanka, this is an immediate must-read. I beseech you all, read it! Just as powerful as Benedict Anderson.) Sivaram says that a nation is defined by a monopoly on violence (i.e., physical force unchallenged internally and can defend externally), a monopoly of resource extraction (i.e., power to tax), and monopoly of adjudication (i.e., its rules are the law of the land).

The problem is other ways of challenging the state will fail if they are crushed physically by Sri Lanka’s monopoly on violence. Hence, Tamil nonviolent Gandhian efforts were crushed, and Tamils learned all of this eventually — through experience. It’s telling that 95% of Sri Lankan police and 99% of the Sri Lankan military are Sinhalese…. If you’re an NGO, you would’ve been kicked out along with the UN from Sri Lanka back in September/October of 2008 or so. Journalists who question things are denied visas to Sri Lanka. If you’re a Human Rights organization, Western government, or the UN, don’t criticize, or else you’re a terrorist-supporter. But China, Russia, Iran, Pakistan, and especially India, they’re friends — they donate weapons and training.

As for other militias trained in the 80s along with the LTTE by India, they all trusted India and left their rear bases there. Only the LTTE kept its rear base in NE Sri Lanka itself. India thus destabilized Sri Lanka, but India’s attempt to enter SL with the IPKF was abortive as they had to fight the Tigers. Since then, they’ve been after the Tigers, even to the extent of engineering Karuna’s split (with UNP leader Ranil Wickremasinghe’s help source 1, source 2, source 3), or sending tanks and advice to the FDLs of recent fighting. The Tigers are far from perfect, but their ideals have not wavered. Given the default alternative, people can’t be blamed for hedging their bets with the Tigers. –> http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/south_asia/2261170.stm

Thanks Daniel for raising the most important question in solving the problems in motherland.
LTTE was a creation of the problems faced by the Tamils in motherland, to date there is no change in the problems faced by the Tamils. Successive governments in motherland used these problems to come to the power and did not make genuine efforts to remedy the situation.
Tamils all over the world has been appealing everyone to help stop the killing and harassment of their brethren in motherland. To date no international agency or governments has done anything concrete to stop the killing or harassment of Tamils in motherland. In the absence of concrete efforts to protect the lives and rights of Tamils in motherland Tamils will continue to believe LTTE is their only savior, which is understandable.
Having said that for the sake of peace and our brethren lives in motherland we should have open mind, and think beyond LTTE. If we see LTTE as the only hope for our grievances, motherland problems will not be solved. Here are the reasons:
1. In motherland’s history Tamils had spent the first 30 years after independence (roughly 1948 – 1978) in non-violent ways to resolve grievances. But that had failed and let the formation of arm movements like LTTE. Arm movements had spent the next 30 years (roughly 1978 – 2008) to solve the problems in motherland in their ways and it also has also failed. These events have lead us into 21st Century and 21st Century problems need 21st Century approaches. I strongly believe time has come to adopt a different approach to solving the problem in motherland. If Tamils are genuinely concerned about the well being of the Tamils in motherland they should think beyond LTTE and give chance for new approaches.
2. There are lots of people Tamils & Sinhalese who are horrified by the actions of the LTTE, for them LTTE is bad dream. LTTE has not proved that this characteristic of it has changed. To solve any problems parties representing the people first have to believe in each other. In case of motherland it has not happened in 2002 – 2005 year period and it would be waste of time to think it will happen in foreseeable future.
3. Tamils in motherland are like people without heads as they are under immense threat they cannot think anything different than to think how to survive each day. Also the cream of the Tamil society is outside of motherland contributing positively to the countries they have adopted.

I think many posts have focused on looking beyond the LTTE for better alternatives. The sentiments to think outside the box, hope for better, etc. are welcome. But again, we’re answering the wrong questions here. instead, i think we should start by answering what alternatives to the LTTE exist for Tamils. As far as I can tell, the alternatives to the LTTE are the systemically majoritarian racist government and the paramilitaries that it uses for counter-insurgency. (Yes, EPDP, TMVP, etc. count as paramilitaries, unless it’s okay for political parties to carry AK-47’s and carry out “dirty work” on behalf of the military.)

If we can think of other concrete alternatives, then we can proceed to debate which is better. Until then, we haven’t progressed the discussion.

Looking at the comments from the Tamil viewers, it clearly shows the majority of the Tamils – rightly or wrongly think LTTE is the only salvation for their problems. Unfortunately, this creates another problem for the Tamils that they fail to understand. Aside from the support in the Tamil Diaspora, LTTE has no support in the International community, as they have been banned in almost 40 countries, mostly in the West. This pose a big problem for the LTTE, because the world does not recognize LTTE soley represents all the Tamils. And the LTTE is branded as a deadliest terrorist group that have killed more people by sucide bombing than Al-quada. The other blunder the LTTE made was killing the Indian Prime Minister Rajive Gandhi, which created an extremely negative image of LTTE in India, and else where losing the earliar sympathy they had for the Tamils. Other than in the Tamil Nadu, there is no sympathy for the Tamils in the rest of the India. India will never get involved directly in Sri Lanka again, as they got burnt in the past. Also, India will never allow the partitioning of Sri Lanka, as they know that Tamil Nadu will be the next. What most Tamil writers here don’t seem to understand is that the LTTE has no future, either in Sri Lanka or India, and especially in the International community – mainly because of LTTE’s failure to renounce terrorism and accept the democrtic process. The LTTE always has been and will be (if they last) an armed group as it’s leader has no political knowledge, or desire to give up arms. What very sad is that they missed many good opportunities where they could have become a very strong political force representing the Sri Lankan Tamils.

Regarding Dr. Sulaiman’s comments, most of them can abbreviated as “Tigers are terrorists, and they’re about to be defeated anyways.” The discourse of terrorism (including “state-terrorism”) does us a disservice by avoiding naming problematic issues for what they are and instead lumping them into one fuzzy category. The only thing that all definitions of terrorism that I’ve seen share is that they’re a pejorative. Taking any such definition to its logical conclusion leads to uncomfortable results.

Mandela only got off of the terror list in July 2008: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/americas/7484517.stm.
Britain called Iceland a terrorist country in October 2008: http://www.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,1855901,00.html
Chandrika Kumaratunga, when she was President of Sri Lanka, in 2001 called the 17 years of rule by the opposition party in Sri Lanka before her term as “state terror”: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GyrLYtjAPHs

The Zeitgeist of the world post-USSR is the use of ‘terrorism’ as our preferred political pejorative, following the proud tradition of ‘fascist’ and ‘Commie’ in their respective eras. When have people not demonized ‘Others’ they’re at odds with? Terrorism discourse is, however, useful to silence discussion with vacuous arguments and persecute anyone who challenges them.

Now it is almost impossible for the LTTE to fight back or regain the military strength they had before, as Sri Lankan Forces have learnt from their past mistakes and become one of the strongest and, efficient Armed Forces in the whole of Asia. So what are the options open for the LTTE? Unfortunately not very much. They are surrounded by the huge Sri Lankan Army and the LTTE is running out of time as their fighting capabilities are becoming weaker and weaker, due to lack of conventional arms and the manpower. Unfortunately, the Sri Lankan government never going to agree to a ceasefire at this junture as they know very well its only going to benefit the LTTE. The Army is determined to finish the LTTE to the end and, they know that they have the upper hand.

The reality is future looks extremely grim for the LTTE, as much as their loyal supporters like to believe otherwise…

As for the military situation, defeating the LTTE won’t solve the cyclical, self-reinforcing structural problem driving the conflict. And besides, it’s hard to say for sure if Dr. Sulaiman’s assertions regarding this are quite accurate:
Do Sri Lankas defence forces have conventional warfare capability? by D. Sivaram (Taraki)
INTERVIEW-Sri Lanka can’t crush Tigers, says terror expert by Simon Gardner, Reuters

The question posed here is, what alternatives to the LTTE exist for Tamils? The framing of this question is premised on the basis that the LTTE had done some service to the LTTE and therefore the Tamils have to be careful before they think of an alternative to the LTTE. My question is what the LTTE had done positively to the Tamils. In my view nothing other than destruction.

Hi Arun Vincent, Maybe you missed the earlier portion of the discussion, so let me clarify things. The problem of Sri Lanka is a structural one that is self-reinforcing. See earlier posts for details. The reason we’re even talking about the LTTE is because it has proven to be one way to challenge Sri Lanka’s structural problem. Yes, beyond the LTTE’s complex military forces, they have civil administrative departments that are quite authoritarian, albeit somewhat effective. And while the LTTE is around, the government, including its monopoly on violence, will be challenged, hence war. So in an ideal world, this clearly isn’t ideal. The question of alternatives is what alternatives are there to challenging the systemic Sri Lankan ethnic majoritarianism?

So the question is where do we go from here. We go back to the point in time when the LTTE grabbed this issue from the moderate politicians [by killing them]. Let us start from there in a non-violent struggle. We have to seek international support including IMF to impose on political, economical, technical embargoes/sanctions on Sri Lanka. separate state is not the agenda.

At the point when the LTTE “grabbed this issue from moderate politicians”, it was a new, underground organization with less than a dozen people (or rather, the Black July 83 riots are what grabbed the issue from politicians, handed it to all of the militias, and blamed it on the Tigers). This is also after the point when those moderate politicians ran for Parliament on a platform of creating a separate state — Tamil Eelam — and won an overwhelming victory in the North & East. So obviously, the non-violent protests and political struggle preceding the LTTE ended in polarization of the island due to the repetitive systemic marginalization by the government. In other words, we got to the point of polarization, inexorably, in the decades before the LTTE even came into existence.  This was the fate of the moderate politicians who tried long before anything like the LTTE existed.

But this is good — you’ve suggested an alternative: non-violent struggle and asking the IMF to impose sanctions. Tamils have been increasingly asking the international community to do this for at least the past 3 or 4 years since the war unofficially resumed in 2006 and civilians have been killed consistently in small numbers over this long period of time until now. So I want to ask you, concretely, how do we go about asking the IMF to do this so that they would actually listen? We’ve been dying to know — literally.

And while we’re at it, we might consider the UN along with the IMF. But something wrong is going on there: http://www.innercitypress.com/unsc9srilanka022709.html

In any case, how do we get the IMF and UN to listen? Please let us know concretely how to go about it.

And are there any other suggestions out there?

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